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Saying, Keeping Silent & Showing

Slavoj Žižek on Wittgenstein and Cancel Culture.

Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen.
(‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.’)
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 1921

In this final proposition of his Tractatus, Ludwig Wittgenstein prohibits the impossible. But why should one prohibit something that is already in itself impossible? The answer is relatively easy: if we ignore this prohibition, we produce statements which are for Wittgenstein meaningless, just as speculations about the noumenal domain are in Immanuel Kant’s philosophy. (The psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan qualified the prohibition of incest in a similar way, claiming that its result is to render the impossible possible: if incest has to be prohibited, it means that it is possible to violate the prohibition.) There is, however, an ambiguity in Wittgenstein’s proposition, which resides in the double meaning of the German nicht … kann. It can mean either simple literal impossibility, or a deontic (moral) prohibition: ‘You cannot talk/behave like that!’ The proposition can thus be read in the radical ontological sense intended by Wittgenstein himself – that there are things impossible to talk about, such as metaphysical speculations – or else in a conformist moral sense: ‘Shut up about things you are not allowed to talk about!’

But the ethical imperative is the very opposite of this conformist ‘wisdom’. Horrors like the Holocaust or the Communist purges or colonial disasters cannot be passed over in silence (as happens in today’s China). We have to bring them out. The tautological cynical wisdom, ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent’ is the opposite of this ethical injunction, since, on the ethical reading it means: Even if you know you cannot keep quiet about it, do not talk about it, since talking about it would pose too much of a threat to you.

Silence Woman
Silence Woman 1861 Le Magasin Pittoresque Public Domaain

What, then, about the literal tautology? ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent’ defines poetry: poetry is an attempt to put in words what cannot be said – to evoke it – and this holds precisely for traumatic events like the Holocaust. Any prosaic description of the horrors of the Holocaust fails to render its trauma. This is why Adorno was wrong with his famous claim that after Auschwitz poetry is no longer possible: it is prose which is no longer possible, since only poetry can do the job. Poetry is the inscription of impossibility into a language: when we cannot say something directly yet we nonetheless insist in speaking, we unavoidably get caught in repetitions, postponements, indirectness, surprising cuts, etc. We should always bear in mind that the ‘beauty’ of classic poetry (symmetric rhymes etc.) comes second; that primarily, poetry is a way to compensate for the basic failure or impossibility of communication.

But this is not Wittgenstein’s last word on communication. Already in the Tractatus he introduces another term which works as the opposite of ‘saying’ (Sprechen), namely ‘showing’ or ‘displaying’ (Zeigen). So we can also say: Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, dass zeigt sich. (Whereof one cannot speak, that shows itself.)

The inversion of this statement, Was man nicht zeigen kann, darüber muss man sprechen ‘What one cannot show, thereof one must speak’ is a vulgar commonsense notion, since it reduces ‘showing’ to the obvious meaning of ‘what is evidently present in front of us’, which can be exemplified by seeing one’s exterior. The argument is then that focusing on how a person appears ignores the deeper spiritual truth of this person – the truth which can only be rendered by words describing it. Against this line of argumentation one should focus on the elementary Hegelian question: not ‘What is the secret beneath appearance?’, but ‘ Why does a thing need to appear in the first place?’

In short, Wittgenstein’s ‘showing’ has nothing to do with ‘appearing’ as opposed to what’s hidden. Rather, his ‘showing’ is the form of appearance that is ignored when we focus on what appears. Wittgenstein follows here Marx and Freud, who both claim that the true secret is not Beyond what appears, but the form of appearing itself: the commodity form, or the form of dreams, in Marx and Freud respectively.

The difference between zeigen (showing) and schweigen (keeping silent) is that while schweigen is an act (I decide not to speak, which implies that I am already within the domain of speech – a stone does not ‘keep silent’), zeigen happens involuntarily: it is a by-product of what I am doing when I speak. I don’t (and cannot) decide what to show. This insight (formulated by Wittgenstein in many versions, like ‘what can be shown cannot be said’) should not be read as a hint towards some ineffable deep Truth beyond words. Rather, what cannot be said is fully part of saying – it is the form displayed by saying; it is what we do by saying something. To Wittgenstein’s own example of ‘honesty’, we could add ‘dignity’: Talking about your own dignity or honesty does not make you dignified nor honest. Rather, honesty and dignity can only be shown/displayed by doing – by acting as an honest or dignified person. This recalls what I often refer to as the ‘Hugh Grant paradox’ (referring to the famous scene from Four Weddings and a Funeral). As the hero tries to articulate his love to the beloved, he gets caught in stumbling and confused repetitions; but it is this very failure to deliver his message of love in a perfect way that bears witness to its authenticity. In his very failure to speak about his love, he shows/displays his love (although we can, of course, also intentionally fake such failures). We are dealing here with Wittgenstein’s version of ‘there is no meta-language’: the idea that a speech act cannot include into what it says its own form, its own act. Jon Elster articulated this feature in his notion of ‘states that are essentially by-products’:

“Some psychological and social states have the property that they can only come about as the by-product of actions undertaken for other ends. They can never, that is, be brought about intelligently and intentionally, because the attempt to do so precludes the very state one is trying to bring about. I call these ‘states that are essentially by-products.’ There are many states that may arise as by-products of individual or aggregate action, but this is the subset of states than can only come about in this way. Some of these states are very useful or desirable, and so it is very tempting to try to bring them about. We may refer to such attempts as ‘excess of will,’ a form of hubris that pervades our lives, perhaps increasingly so.”
(‘States that are Essentially by-products’, in Social Science Information, vol.20, no.3, 1981.)

Among many examples offered by Elster, (like “Good art is impressive; art designed to impress rarely is.”), one should mention the topic of authenticity and sincerity: “The terms of sincerity and authenticity, like those of wisdom and dignity, always have a faintly ridiculous air about them when employed in the first person singular, reflecting the fact that the corresponding states are essentially by-products… Naming the unnamable by talking about something else is an ascetic practice and goes badly with self-congratulation.” (Ibid) Elster mentions here the ‘unnamable’, which brings us back to Wittgenstein: we might say, sincerity and authenticity cannot be named, they can only be shown/displayed by way of practicing them. This lesson deals a heavy blow to the cult of authenticity which has pervaded our culture from the 1950s onwards, and which has been given a new push by the trans-ideology: ‘Be true to yourself; don’t be afraid to assume what you feel you are’.

Ludwig Wittgenstein
Ludwig Wittgenstein

According to Bertrand Russell (in his Foreword to the original English edition of the Tractatus), Wittgenstein managed to say quite a lot about the unsayable. Following this famous quip, could we not say that Elster also manages to say quite a lot about a dimension that he proclaims ‘unnamable’? However, this reproach misses the point. Of course we can talk about what a speech act shows or displays, but not in the first person: I cannot designate myself as authentic, as having dignity, etc. If I do this, I undermine my authenticity or dignity, which can only show itself in how I act. The statement ‘there is no meta-language’ should be understood in this precise sense: I cannot include my position of enunciation (which may display dignity) into my own enunciated content.

And does something similar not hold for both poles of today’s global political space, authoritarian nationalism and Cancel Culture? On September 29, 2023, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov “indicated that Moscow is prepared for discussions concerning Ukraine, provided they take into account the situation on the ground and Russia’s security interests” (‘Lavrov: Russia open to talks, but only if Ukraine meets these two conditions’, on msn.com). Which means: “We are prepared for peace negotiations, provided Ukraine accepts that territories occupied by Russia are part of Russia, and provided it radically changes its politics… In short, provided Ukraine capitulates.” The Western liberal approach is often problematized along the same lines by anti-colonial critics, who claim that for Western liberals, democratic exchange is formulated in terms which secretly impose the logic of Western democracy-and-freedom, so that joining liberal pluralism effectively amounts to a capitulation to Western values… Lavrov asserts the logic problematized by anti-colonial critics in its purest form. In Wittgensteinian terms, Lavrov speaks about negotiations, but what he shows/displays with his speech is the very opposite of negotiation – a brutal exclusive enforcing of one’s own position.

Along the same lines, I can easily imagine Hegel having a repeated intellectual orgasm when bringing out the (for him) obvious reality of the reversing of inclusivity and diversity into a procedure for systematic exclusion. As he might ask, “How long can parts of the liberal Left keep maintaining that ‘Cancel Culture’ is but a phantom of the right, as they literally go round cancelling gigs, comedy shows, film showings, lectures and conversations?” (Quoted from ‘Banning free speech in the name of inclusivity and diversity is the Fringe’s sickest joke’, by Suzanne Moore, msn.com). Cancel Culture is permeated with a ‘no-debate-stance’: not only a person or position is excluded, also excluded is the very debate itself, the confrontation of arguments for or against exclusion. Hegel would have mobilized here what Lacan called the gap between enunciated content and the underlying stance of enunciation. In other words, he would point out, you argue for diversity and inclusion, but you do it by excluding all those who do not fully subscribe to your own definition of diversity and inclusion – so all you do is permanently exclude people and stances. In this way, the struggle for inclusion and diversity has given birth to an atmosphere of Stasi-like suspicion and denunciation, where you never know when a private remark of yours will lead to your elimination from the public space… Don’t we get here an extreme version of the joke about eating the last cannibal?: “There are no opponents of diversity and inclusion in our group – we just excluded the last one…”

So in Wittgensteinian terms, while Cancel Culture speaks about diversity and inclusion, it shows/displays a stance of extreme exclusion. Such an inversion of inclusion into exclusion also obeys a deep Hegelian dialectical reversal, namely, the transposition of an external threat into immanent antagonism – as was perspicuously noted by Elster apropos the notion, fashionable today, of democracy under threat: “We can reverse the common dictum that democracy is under threat, and affirm that democracy is the threat, at least in its short-termist populist form” (‘Some Notes on ‘Populism”, Philosophy and Social Criticism, vol. 46, no. 4, 2020). Exactly as in the case in Cancel Culture, the threats to inclusion and diversity are inclusion and diversity themselves, when they are practiced in a way that shows/displays extreme exclusion.

© Slavoj Žižek 2023

Slavoj Žižek is, among other things, international director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities at the University of London, visiting professor at New York University, and a senior researcher at the University of Ljubljana’s Department of Philosophy. His latest book is Freedom: A Disease Without A Cure.

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